With the excitement of a historical presidential race and the economy seemingly crashing down around us, no one could be blamed for losing track of a complicated and confusing regulation that the Health & Human Services Department has proposed. However, tomorrow is the last day to submit comments on a rule that claims to protect health care providers and entities from "discrimination" but would end up denying patients critical services and information.
The idea behind the rule is that providers who have moral objections to abortion and sterilization are in need of protection from those who might force them to provide such services against their will. The thing is, federal law already protects them from such circumstances.
The HHS rule would go much, much farther.
First, it would extend beyond doctors and nurses to just about anyone involved in the health care system -- ambulance drivers, claims processors, janitors, even candy stripers. Second, it could apply to much more than abortion and sterilization. Patients could be denied the most popular forms of contraception, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections or HIV/AIDS, fertility treatments, end-of-life care, and anything else to which someone might possibly object. Third, the objection could be for any moral reason or notion of conscience. There is no requirement to show that a sincerely-held religious belief would be violated, which is the standard test for religious accommodation in the workplace.
But I want to focus on the part of the rule that would allow medical professionals not only to opt out of performing objectionable procedures but would let them refuse to provide information and counseling as well.
Keep in mind, most of the rule's supporters -- like the Family Research Council, the Christian Medical Association, and Concerned Women for America -- also strongly support "informed consent," at least if it concerns information on fetal development and theories about fetal pain. That's why you see the same groups lined up in favor of bills that would make women seeking abortions first view a sonogram, be offered anesthesia for the fetus, and listen to state-mandated scripts telling them an abortion "will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being."
Yet if a woman sought unbiased, nondirective counseling about her options to continue or terminate a pregnancy, an objecting physician would not have to provide any information under this rule. And if a rape victim wanted emergency contraception, an objecting pharmacist would not have to refer her to a pharmacy that would give it to her. How exactly is a woman supposed to be able to make informed decisions and act on them when medical professionals can withhold information from her at will?
And where is the concern for the conscience of the nurse who is required to provide his patients with state materials that he thinks are biased and inaccurate? And what of the doctor who cannot perform the safest procedure for her patient because the federal government has banned it?
Apparently only one set of morals is entitled to protection in HHS' view.
Rather than protecting people from discrimination, the HHS regulation would elevate one moral code to a special status that trumps all others. With one final gift to the radical right, the Bush administration has offered a rule that threatens both the diversity of beliefs in our pluralistic society and the health and well-being of patients seeking care.
Time is running out but there's still a chance to act. You can submit comments on the regulation here or by emailing your comments to email@example.com by 11:59 pm EDT Thursday, September 25th.
Jessica Arons is the director of the Women's Health & Rights Program and a member of the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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